UVM student builds alliance to connect medical students with disabilities

Vermont News

BURLINGTON, Vt. (WFFF) – December 3 was International Day of People With Disabilities, and UVM’s Larner College of Medicine highlighted the work of one student who has worked to boost awareness and outreach.

Emerson Wheeler co-created the Alliance of Disabilities and Chronic Illnesses in Medicine. It’s a national organization that aims to support medical students with disabilities and chronic illnesses.

The group has 60 members, including students from Florida State University College of Medicine, Stanford University School of Medicine, Penn State College of Medicine, University of Michigan Medical School, Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University, Harvard Medical School, and Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Because the group is still in its early stages, a large portion of its work so far has been figuring out the needs of each individual member at their university.

“I’ve been so blessed to be at UVM, but there are a lot of people in the group who are really struggling to figure out what accommodations are even possible for them in a medical education,” Wheeler said. “That’s kind of where we’re headed—compiling a list of what’s out there, and what we can do.”

The group was formed following an anonymous call of alliance for chronic illnesses on Twitter. Abigail Schirmer, a Florida State University College of Medicine student, reached out to Emerson. They both worked to form the primary idea for a national organization to support medical students with disabilities and chronic illnesses.

The alliance is building a mentorship program, researching accommodations for standardized exams and identifying areas of improvement, and engaging in community development by providing resources, advice and networking opportunities.

In addition to working with the alliance, Wheeler has also offered insight and advice through an article published on the UVM Larner College of Medicine Blog titled “Living with a Fallible Body: A Chronically Ill and Disabled Medical Student Guide.”

“It’s sort of the culmination of the past year for me,” Wheeler said.

Earlier this year, Wheeler was diagnosed with a genetic disorder he’s had his entire life, but didn’t know about it. “It’s me talking about that process of coming to terms with a diagnosis like that the same time as starting my clinical rotations during third year, being in the middle of a pandemic, being in the middle of a cyberattack, being in the middle of a cyberattack, all rolled into one,” he said.

Wheeler outlined four lessons that have proven to be critical in a year with so much adversity: expect assumptions, advocate for yourself, communicate needs early and often, and use your experience to become the doctor you wish you had. Each of those lessons is further explained in the blog article.

“Training to be a medical provider while disabled by chronic illness has allowed me to acknowledge the fallibility of all bodies,” Wheeler wrote. “It’s also made me realize the need for continued advocacy within medical education and health care systems in order to educate medical educators and future physicians to understand the experience of those like myself who are both medical students and patients.”

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